Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Meaning of Life

There has been much discussion in the last several years about the possibility of extending the human life span. As futuristic as it sounds, medical research is uncovering possible methods by which the maximum age could increase from about 120 years to 160, 180, 200, and just keep on going. Some argue against extending lives because they believe it to be unnatural. I have no sympathy for this view. I don't see how this objection wouldn't also apply to any and every kind of medical treatment.

That's a post for another day though. For now, I just want to emphasize what the possibility of extending life spans does not do. Avoiding death is a good goal to have, but the mere extension of our lives can never satisfy. Immortality is not enough: we need meaning. We need a meaningful life. The atheist existentialists tried to address this, but never really went beyond the suggestion that we should pretend our lives have meaning even though they really don't. Others may say that making other people happy or making a difference in society would do it. But that doesn't give any real meaning, only a relative meaning. That is, if the happiness of others or the betterment of society has no meaning, then working towards one of them is simply arbitrary. If changing the world for the better is pointless and meaningless, then why bother? Why not work towards making other people suicidal, or for the downfall of civilization instead? If our existence doesn't have any significance, any purpose, any meaning, then what motivation is there to do or say anything?

It seems to me that the only serious answer one could give would be pleasure. But this has several problems:

First, when we pursue pleasure, we tend to become sickened. If we seek pleasure with food and gorge ourselves, or with alcohol and drunkeness, it stops being fun. This doesn't just mean that if you eat or drink too much you'll get sick. It also means that if we regularly gorge ourselves, or regularly get drunk, it tends to become less and less pleasurable.

Second, if someone gets pleasure from something that is harmful to others, like child-abuse, what could motivate them to not pursue such pleasure? Well, the danger of being caught perhaps. But this only means that such a person would only abuse children when he's confident that he can get away with it. A sophisticated murderer would only kill people whose lives have less impact on society, and therefore their deaths would also have less impact; and so he would be able to get away with it. This is simply unacceptable.

Third, seeking pleasure is something everybody does. If it really led to the highest satisfaction one could achieve in life, why would anyone think otherwise? It's like that Calvin and Hobbes comic where Calvin taped paper wings to his arms so he could fly. Hobbes asks him "If paper wings is all it takes to fly, don't you think we'd have heard about it by now?" If pleasure is all there is to life, don't you think everyone would have realized it by now? But we don't: we realize that there is more to life, although we often can't put our finger on it. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, two Catholic philosophers from Boston College, wrote that to live solely for pleasure "is the stupidest gamble in the world, for it is the only one that has consistently never paid off ... every batter who has ever approached that plate has struck out. ... After trillions of failures and a one hundred percent failure rate, this is one experiment no one should keep trying." An essay by William Lane Craig, published as chapter 2 of his book Reasonable Faith, discusses this and similar themes; it's called "The Absurdity of Life Without God". Read it at your own risk.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)


Noons said...

I also posted this on Quodlibeta.

At any given moment on Earth, there are about 3 generations present. If life can be extended several decades, we would have 4 generations on Earth, a lot more people, but the same amount of food, water, etc.

Not only that, but what about youth extension? What if you could have the body of a 20 year old for 20 years or more? You could have several kids, watch them grow up, graduate college, all without getting gray hair and wrinkles...and then have more kids!

So each generation could produce two generations of offspring, similar to certain animals who mate and give birth every year, only for us it might be 2 or 3 kids, then another 2 or 3 after a 20-year gap.

The world's resources would never be able to supply such a large number of people, it would be a disaster.

I'm not saying we should stop trying to cure diseases or to pull the plug on granny, but that extending life expectency by several decades should not be a goal.

Brennan said...


Hi, it's been a while.

I found your first paragraph quite enlightening. I'm going to think on it.

I found it when I was reading Quodlibeta, which I do every now and then.

I hope everything is going well for you in your PhD. Keeping makin' it happen! =)

Jim S. said...

Hi Noons, thanks for your comment, and sorry to take so long to respond.

I think your argument would also apply to sickness. Why not let those who have cancer die rather than striving to cure it? Isn't that an attempt to extend the average human life span? Of course you contest this in your comment, but I don't see where a line can be drawn between the two so that curing cancer is good but extending the average lifespan is not.

You do have a point about the earth's resources, but that simply means we shouldn't rely solely on the earth for our resources. There are plenty of natural resources available for us in the asteroid belt and elsewhere (Jupiter's moons and atmosphere for example). These resources are available to us now, but we keep dithering around on Earth because we expect to solve the world's problems before spending money off-Earth, which is just unrealistic.